Since November, Top Dawg Entertainment has released music videos for three songs from Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. First a music video for lead single "i," then a video for "King Kunta" in April, and now this latest music video for the album's fourth single, "Alright."
All three of these videos were led by different directors, yet they share several, familiar set pieces—black kids, white cops, juiced super-cars, California—and a common vision.
All three videos were shot in California; mostly in L.A., with bits of "Alright" having been filmed in Oakland, Treasure Island, and elsewhere in the Bay. Together, the music videos for "i," "King Kunta," and "Alright" form a sprawling, Grand Theft Auto composite of a sun-blessed city that's overrun with fun and brutality, two forces that provide the central conflict in Kendrick's music. These are unyielding, 24/7 forces that span night (as depicted in "i"), dawn (as depicted in "King Kunta"), and day (as depicted in "Alright").
These videos aren't three acts of a single story, but rather three shades of a single reality. Let's walk with Kendrick Lamar from one frame to the next.
Here's the first of these videos, "i," which was filmed at night, in both indoor and outdoor darkness, despite "i" being the brightest, most optimistic song on To Pimp A Butterfly. Nonetheless, "i" is a song about depression. Its cheerfulness is, in fact, introspective mayhem. At one point in the music video, Kendrick marches past the kitchen window of a drunk and tearful young man who is prepared to blow his own brains out, until Kendrick's defiant proximity inspires him to ease his finger from the trigger. Elsewhere, a black man is surrounded by three cops and arrested for reasons that are unclear and possibly unconscionable.
The "i" music video is Kendrick's happy little tour of a darkness lit by neon and police presence. The video ends with Kendrick throwing sweat to the wind and rolling his eyes to the back of his skull as he leans fully out the back window of a speeding, stunting Cadillac. Shouts out to Ron Isley, the driver.
The "King Kunta" video was helmed by Director X, whom we interviewed in April right after the video was released. Here Kendrick dances along the roof of the old Compton swap meet as the sun hangs low in the east; it's morning. The video's one interior location is a (real-life) friend's living room, where there are framed portraits of black American household saints Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Barack Obama.
The "King Kunta" video's humid, golden filter is a compounding hint of dawn, with footage of Kendrick driving in search of donuts, breakfast sandwiches, and the funk. Like the "i" video before it, "King Kunta" mostly features Kendrick and his crew doing laps around the neighborhood to enliven various parking lots and driveways. It's lo-fi, low-budget, and old-school, cut from the lineage of Dre and Snoop's music videos for "Let Me Ride" and "Who Am I? (What's My Name?)" from their respective solo debut albums. Director X says Kendrick and TDE were specifically interested in recreating the music video for "Still D.R.E," regarded as "a trademark for West Coast visuals."
As six-inch heels and motorcycle tires shred that parking lot in the "King Kunta" video, there's not a cop or wagon in sight.
"Alright" is the "artsy"-est of these three music videos. It's shot in black and white, and it features lots of figurative concepts and new bits of musical prelude that's not included on the album version of "Alright." In the music video, there are four patrolmen carrying Kendrick, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock on their shoulders like a royal sedan. When Kendrick's not in the car, he's happily kicking and soaring along the California coastline, and floating at the center of a thousand ecstatic fans.
At the end of the video, a veteran police officer aims his cocked finger-gun at Kendrick and fires, sniping Lamar from his precarious stance atop the traffic pole of a downtown L.A. intersection. With that shot and splatter exiting his back, Kendrick Lamar is but the latest, fateful victim of, in his words, "a war that was based on apartheid." He falls in slow-motion. Like the space cowboy Spike Spiegel, he winks and dies simultaneously.
Speaking to MTV about the making of the "Alright" video, Berkeley-based director Colin Tilley said that his goal was to create a dreamy refuge from the angst, malaise, and violence that's depicted in the video's first two minutes, before the song kicks in. Tilley's goals are subsumed into Kendrick's leading vision, and Kendrick's many Butterfly collaborators have collectively confirmed that Kendrick went into this project with a clear, specific sense of the themes and imagery that he meant to convey.
These music videos, as well as the songs themselves, are all about local fun that's menaced—invisibly, subtly, or else violently—by the introduction of guns and the arrival of police. In two of three settings, Kendrick Lamar is imperiled by the beat cops who patrol L.A. neighborhoods by night and sizzling day. In all three settings, children laugh and fat gangbangers dance regardless.
Justin Charity is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @BrotherNumpsa.